Spring – Summer 2008
TV series, 12 episodes
Genre(s): Science-fiction, drama
Synopsis: A man with no memories wakes up in a world where body exchange and memory alteration are commonplace.
The good: Animation on crack, amazing music, truly unique story and characters, emotional weight rarely seen in anime nowadays.
The bad: Confusing at times, not for kids.
I watched the last episode of Kaiba mere days ago, and yet here I am, listening to the show’s soundtrack, trying in vain to translate into words the emotions that it elicited in me as I followed the adventures of Warp, Vanilla, Popo and Neiro each week. The closest I can manage is by comparing it to Silent Hill 2: if you are also haunted by that game’s soundtrack, then you may understand what kind of beast Kaiba is and the muddled impressions that listening to its music brings to mind. Neither dreams nor nightmares, but something inbetween.
Like someone else’s memories.
Kaiba starts with an admittedly cliched premise. A man with no memories wakes up in a room by himself. His only possession is a locket with a blurry picture of a beautiful girl growling at the camera. Oh, and he has a hole in his chest large enough to fit your fist through, which is a metaphor that needs little explanation: whoever he was, this man has lost part of himself, and he’s in pain.
A second man enters the room. His name is Popo-san. He saves our nameless protagonist from giant memory-sucking robots with a bit of help from (steel yourself) a one-eyed space ostrich named Hal. Yah. I know. It sounds very, very stupid put that way… Yet everyone has a story in Kaiba, even Hal, and it will surface eventually.
Popo-san takes a liking to our hero, teaches him about the world and its inhabitants, and makes travel arrangements for him; when a body collector violently interrupts those, Popo-san again puts his life on the line and, before leaving, christens our nameless protagonist Warp, a name that holds incalculable meaning. The show will follow Warp’s escape from the dystopian world, his travels to a handful of other planets no less star-crossed, and his return, upon which the true identities and desires of all protagonists will reveal themselves.
It’s impossible to avoid mentioning studio Madhouse’s zany animation. Here is what I wrote in an earlier post:
The first thing you’ll notice about Kaiba is how the images and music were tailored to support the outlandish world and Warp’s story. The animation is deliberately childish, with fluid bold lines, pastel tones, and nary a straight line in sight. Even the guns the characters whip out are exaggerated cylinders that fire formless gobs of yellow goo.”
You’ll know right away if the animation will bother you or not. I took to it like a duck to water; if you’re uncertain from looking at the screenshots, then I implore you, do try watching the first couple of episodes, because you’d be letting a minor issue get in the way of your enjoyment of a superb show. That said, I did label the animation as a selling point in the summary above, and I stand by that decision since I believe that without its exaggerated visual style Kaiba could not elicit such a dream-like vibe in the viewer. As for the soundtrack, I’ve talked about it over and over in other posts, so I’ll be brief. It is both amazingly deep and deceptively simple, like the nursery rhyme your mother used to sing to lull you to sleep, with the OP and ED themes being musical tours de force that evoke longing, love, and loss. In short, it’s beautiful.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: Kaiba‘s themes. The show may give off childish airs with its animation and music. It is anything but. In its story, characters, conflicts, symbolism, and moral, the show explores the meaning and value of memories, bodies, family, love, sex, death, and more. The plethora of characters (both primary and secondary) that Warp/Kaiba meets on his journey force you, the viewer, to reflect on your own life. For some the story of Chroniko and her shiny red boots will hit closest to home. For others, it will be the tragic love story of episode 06’s old couple. Or maybe they’ll all touch your heart in their own way; we’re all human, and so are Kaiba‘s characters. The main plot thread deals with Warp/Kaiba’s true identity and his relationship with Neiro, the woman in the locket. She loved him, he loved her, and yet we find out that neither remembers any of it. You’d be partially right to blame the nippos.
Alas, this psychological jungle of themes and self-reflection is also the show’s (admittedly only) weakness. For one, this is not a show for children. Do not let Kaiba‘s appearance deceive you: it is at times extremely violent, at others sexually depraved, and often too deep for a child to understand or enjoy. Even adults may be put off by its mature themes but, more probably, by the storyline’s complexity. This is a show that requires two or three viewings to arrive at a full understanding of who did what when where to whom. That’s not to say a single viewing is a waste of your time: indeed, it may turn out to be the one your heart remembers forever.
It is a foregone conclusion that Warp/Kaiba will regain his memories before the end. As to who he truly is, and the decisions he makes in episode 12, I’ll leave you to discover. Suffice to say that when Warp/Kaiba faces his namesake, the giant plant Kaiba that seeks to devour the universe, he faces not an outside opponent but himself and his very own nature.
Yay or nay?
This is a trick question. The majority of anime fans will know after watching its first episode for five minutes whether Kaiba will end up in their favorite pile or in their trash pile. If you’ve read this far into my review then you are obviously intrigued; therefore, my recommendation to you is a yay without any reserves or disclaimers, given the show’s emotional impact and its brevity. Go, enjoy Kaiba‘s 12 episodes, and be transformed. This is the kind of intelligent and touching entertainment that could never exist in any other medium.